Talk about shock and awe—and, in this case, a heaping helping of exasperation and eye-rolling.
In a presidential campaign cycle that has been full of surprises, CNN President Jeff Zucker has outdone himself by hiring as an on-air analyst Donald Trump’s recently fired campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski—a man who has periodically shoved and bullied reporters at campaign events, including a CNN journalist, and has regularly displayed a thoroughgoing contempt for the news media’s role in the democratic process.
Zucker and CNN spokespeople didn’t respond to email and voicemail messages from The Daily Beast requesting comment.
The key question is: given his fanatical loyalty to his former boss, what will he able to reveal or say beyond repeating loyalist talking points?
Lewandowski, in his debut CNN appearance on Erin Burnett’s OutFront show on Thursday night, was asked if he had signed a non-disclosure agreement when he worked for the Trump Organization.
He replied that he had signed a document that meant he would keep certain information confidential.
“I don’t plan on ever breaking that,” Lewandowski added. “I will tell you I’m not here to release the private information of family members, or discussions that took place behind the scenes that the public has really no need to be aware of.”
So, Burnett persisted, did that mean he would never make disparaging remarks about Donald Trump?
“Let me tell you who I am,” said Lewandowski. “I am a guy who calls balls and strikes, I am going to tell it like it is. I’ll tell you exactly like it is, whether you like it or not. I’m a straightforward person. That’s not going to change. If something is wrong, I’ll tell people it’s wrong. If something is right, I’m going to tell people it’s right.”
Even if that means saying something bad about Trump, Burnett asked.
“I’m going to say it is like it is… I’m going tell you what I think, for sure.”
Huffington Post political reporter Michelle Fields, who as a journalist for the Trump-friendly Breitbart News outlet filed a criminal complaint against Lewandowski after he manhandled her at a Republican primary night event in Jupiter, Florida, last March, told The Daily Beast: “I think it’s sad that a news network would hire someone who pushed one of their reporters and threatened them”—a reference to an incident last year involving CNN reporter Noah Gray.
Fields added: “My heart goes out to all his new female coworkers who will have to deal with him daily. I imagine CNN HR will be busy this year.”
It’s a predictable irony that around the same time that reports of Lewandowski’s new source of income were surfacing—his compensation a rumored $500,000, according to industry gossip—the presumptive Republican nominee was tweeting a bitter complaint about CNN’s journalism and linking to the Trump-friendly Breitbart News story taking issue with CNN’s fact-checking of the candidate’s Wednesday policy speech attacking his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“Here is another CNN lie,” Trump tweeted. “The Clinton News Network is losing all credibility. I’m not watching it much anymore.”
The majority of staffers in the CNN newsroom, including executives and senior producers, learned of Lewandowski’s arrival as their new colleague from a Thursday afternoon report by Politico media correspondent Hadas Gold.
CNN’s chief media reporter, Brian Stelter, who hosts the Sunday media analysis show Reliable Sources, subsequently confirmed Gold’s scoop in a story of his own, which noted that “Lewandowski’s hiring by CNN is bound to be controversial, even within the newsroom…”
That, it turns out, is an understatement.
Television news business insiders both inside and outside CNN expressed amazement to The Daily Beast that the cable network would recruit Lewandowski, who has displayed in various on-air appearances—including a 29-minute exclusive interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Monday, shortly after he was sacked and escorted out of Manhattan’s Trump Tower by a security guard—an absolute loyalty to his former boss, a zealous devotion to talking points, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious, most recently that his firing came about because of dissention within the understaffed Trump campaign organization.
One insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, described CNN staffers as “furious with Jeff” for hiring Lewandowski, who will be chairing the New Hampshire delegation at next month’s Republican National Convention, to join CNN-paid Trump defenders Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany on the regular political panels.
But a different insider described some CNN staffers as simply resigned to the new hire, and amused that Zucker would follow his trademark practice of taking a big risk for the news operation in hopes of reaping a commensurate reward in ratings and attention. Lewandowksi, who has an intimate knowledge of Trump and the workings of an often-opaque campaign organization, could prove a valuable resource both for CNN reporters and viewers, this insider argued.
But if so, that would be a departure of Lewandowski’s usual practice of lionizing his preferred candidate and demonizing Clinton.
According to knowledgeable sources, Lewandowski also met with MSNBC executives on Monday to discuss a possible contributor’s deal, but the executives there decided not to make him an offer out of concern that he would bring little to viewers beyond his fervent support of his former boss, and that the non-disclosure agreement that he signed with the Trump campaign would prevent him from serving as a candid analyst.
“This whole thing is astonishing to me,” said former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, who directs George Washington University’s media and public affairs department. “CNN might get a little gold star for hiring what passes for a big name in the political world and locking him down exclusively. That’s part of how the political game is played and it will probably help ratings.
“But Lewandowski’s credibility becomes CNN’s credibility. If he peddles talking points and lies, then CNN will be peddling talking points and lies—to their own peril.”
Besides Fields, Gray was another journalist Lewandowski treated roughly during a campaign event last year in Massachusetts.
Mediaite quoted The Washington Post’s account: “After CNN reporter Noah Gray left ‘the pen’ to document a group of protesters who unveiled a sign reading ‘Migrant lives matter,’ Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski turned to campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks and said: ‘Hey: Tell Noah, get back in the pen or he’s f—— blacklisted,’ according to a recording of the incident.
“As Gray went into the crowd to film reaction to the sign, which had already been taken down, Lewandowski confronted him directly: ‘Inside the pen, or I will pull your credentials. Media goes in the pen.’ Lewandowski at first said the order was because of security, but then said: ‘I’m telling you. I’m telling you. Media stays in the pen.’”
An executive for one of CNN’s rivals, who agreed to be identified as “from a network that is not Fox,” declined to comment on Lewandowski’s new job, except to say, “When your opponent is doing himself in, just stand back and don’t get in the way.”
A different television insider opined: “Jeff Zucker just sent a clear message to all of CNN’s journalists by hiring a thug who routinely threatened and bullied the press.”
Frank Sesno, for his part, said that CNN might benefit from Lewandowksi’s presence if he helps the network “report on an almost impenetrable campaign, and you can bring in somebody who could actually shed light on on that campaign and provide something that has value the viewer.
“But,” Sesno added, “if all he’s going to do is be the Trump analyst and hit Trump talking points, all it proves is that even the most disastrous reality show can be capable of generating spinoffs.”